Lawyer Michelle Stanford (left) and Thompson Rivers University law professor Ruby Dhand outside the Kamloops Law Courts. The pair is among a group working toward establishing a mental-health court locally. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week)

B.C. lawyer, professor look to piloting a mental-health court

In November, Nova Scotia’s mental-health court program marked 10 years of existence

  • Feb. 20, 2020 4:30 p.m.

–– Kamloops This Week

A defence lawyer and a Thompson Rivers University law professor are hoping their idea for a mental-health court in Kamloops could eventually effect change not just in the city, but across B.C.

“Oftentimes, we see people with mental-health issues and addictions, they don’t have that support, they don’t have those resources,” Ruby Dhand, a TRU law professor and one of the driving forces behind the idea, told KTW.

“There’s been so much stigma and it’s led to the criminalization of mental-health issues. I think there are a number of reasons we have to ensure there are more specialized courts like this and, specifically, more mental-health courts.”

Dhand has been working with Michelle Stanford, a city defence lawyer, in putting together a plan they hope will lead to a new court in Kamloops for accused people with mental-health and addictions issues.

“We see a lot of mental-health clients being incarcerated at Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre and it being a revolving door,” Stanford said. “We thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

According to Stanford, many mental-health accused are stuck in the system.

“They’re getting charged, pleading guilty, maybe getting assessed and ending up with time served and being released,” she said.

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“Then they’re released with no treatment and it starts over again. Maybe they get more and more time in jail, but there is no treatment. We’re hoping we could take a holistic approach.”

In mental-health court, Dhand said, those accused would receive treatment as part of their sentence.

“The intent is to divert people with mental-health issues away from the criminal-justice system,” she said. “We want to push them towards a plan to ensure they are connected to various supports in the community.”

Dhand said the plan is to have a dedicated court to deal with such accused, perhaps sitting once a week with the same judge and the same prosecutors.

“To have that consistency is really important,” she said. “And the goal is to have some training offered for people in this area.”

The offences dealt with in the court would be minor ones — break-ins, breaches, thefts and the like.

“People need to accept responsibility,” Dhand said. “And the program will only work if it’s voluntary.”

According to Dhand, there are more than 20 mental-health courts operating in Canada, but none in B.C. She said the appetite is there from those involved in the criminal justice system and other associated groups.

“All the agencies we’ve been able to talk to have been excited about this,” she said, noting judges, lawyers and social workers also see a benefit. “They really see this as fundamental to increase access to justice and ensuring fairness.”

Stanford said organizers held a meeting last fall and the plan is to pitch the idea to the Provincial Court of B.C.’s judicial council later this year.

“We have a sense of what the problems are in dealing with recidivists,” she said. “That’s something we’ve considered.”

According to Dhand, the ultimate goal is to have the court in place on a pilot basis in the next 12 months.

“We hope to come out with kind of a blue print,” she said. “This could be a pilot project here and also have it for research — even the practical nature of it. In the future, we could use this as a model for B.C.”

The experience elsewhere

In November, Nova Scotia’s mental-health court program marked 10 years of existence, with its legal approach focused on collaboration rather than conflict.

The court is located in numerous communities and has seen its name changed — from Nova Scotia Mental Health Court to the less stigmatizing Dartmouth Wellness Court.

A preliminary assessment study released in November stated a key ingredient for the success of program participants is “being ready for personal change.”

That was echoed by Tomi Abriel, who completed the program in 2017. Abriel said he was “petrified” when he was first referred to the mental health court.

“In my mind I was walking up the gallows,” he said. “My experience has been the complete opposite. I realized I was on a journey of recovery and had a team of professionals behind me who were really championing my success as long as I was willing to do the hard work that was required.”

Abriel said he was also inspired by seeing others do well in a program he describes as a “dynamic experience.” He credited the support he received from the court and the therapies accessed in the community as a result, with turning his life around.

“I do believe that I have the tools that I need to go on and deal with life on life’s terms as it comes to me,” he said.

Mental health courts first appeared in Canada in the late 1990s to deal with people with mental disorders who come into conflict with the law as a result of their mental challenges.

Unlike the adversarial approach taken in the regular court system, the mental health court focuses on collaboration and problem solving.

“It is now widely acknowledged that the traditional justice system is not well-equipped to address the complex needs of individuals living with mental illness and substance use,” the Nova Scotia study says. “It took years to accept this and develop a new approach.”

In Nova Scotia, the court programs administer a support plan tailored to the needs of each person. They are held accountable for their crimes and are assessed for their potential risk to public safety.

Since its inception, the Dartmouth court has expanded to include an opioid court program, an alcohol court program and a judicial monitoring program, which primarily serves marginalized and vulnerable people who live with undiagnosed trauma.

A report released on the Dartmouth court’s fifth anniversary in 2014 said that of the 232 adults deemed eligible to use the court between 2009 and 2013, 86 per cent had successfully completed its voluntary diversion program.

– with files from The Canadian Press

Tim Petruk, Kamloops This Week

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